The terms ‘Alzheimer’s disease’ and ‘dementia’ are often used interchangeably, as many people mistakenly believe that they are the same thing. However, although symptoms of the two conditions often overlap, they are two distinct diagnoses and medical terms. Distinguishing the difference between the two is important for the management and treatment of each set of symptoms.
Dementia is a syndrome, not a disease. A syndrome is a group of symptoms that doesn’t have a definitive diagnosis, or cause. Think of the term ‘dementia’ like having a ‘sore throat.’ You say ‘sore throat’ as a way to articulate your symptoms, although you don’t know the exact cause of your sore throat. It could be allergies, a cold, bronchitis, or any number of other causes. Therefore, you use the umbrella term ‘sore throat’ to convey your symptoms without knowing the causation. Similarly, dementia is an umbrella term for a set of symptoms including impaired thinking and memory, often associated with the cognitive decline of aging. Although Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, issues other than Alzheimer’s can cause these symptoms. Other common causes of dementia are Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, dehydration, drug interaction or vitamin deficiency.
As a medical term, dementia isn’t just about memory mishaps -- like forgetting where you left your keys. A person with dementia has a hard time with at least two of the following:
• Communication and speech
• Focus and concentration
• Reasoning and judgment
• Visual perception
Alzheimer’s is a very specific form of dementia. The disease occurs when proteins and fibers incorrectly accumulate to form hard, insoluble plaques in your brain between nerves. These plaques form a block between nerve signals that prohibit the fluid route of thought, memory, and cognition. This damage to the brain begins years before any symptoms appear.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s include impaired thought, impaired speech, and intense confusion. Although younger people can and do get Alzheimer’s, the symptoms generally begin after age 60. The time from diagnosis to death can be as little as three years in people over 80 years old. However, it can be much longer for younger people.
Beyond the difference in terminology, one major difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia as diagnoses is that Alzheimer’s is not a reversible disease. It is degenerative and incurable at this time. In contrast, since there are many possible causes of dementia, some forms, such as a drug interaction or a vitamin deficiency, are actually reversible or temporary.
Additionally, symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia can overlap, but there are distinct differences in certain symptoms. Both conditions can cause a decline in the ability to think, memory impairment, and communication impairment. However, symptoms exclusive to Alzheimer’s include: difficulty remembering recent events or conversations, apathy, depression, impaired judgment, disorientation, confusion, behavioral changes, and difficulty speaking, swallowing, or walking in advanced stages of the disease.
Although the difference between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia may seem minute, distinguishing between the two can make a big difference in the treatment and management of the diagnosis. If you believe you or someone you know may be displaying early signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia, consult a doctor to gain a correct diagnosis and the tools to begin managing the symptoms.